State of the Church 2005
The Church continues to be hampered in the work of reformation by certain “unquestionable truths” that are still circulated among us.
“I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex. 20: 2).
The Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation, tell us the story of salvation, and they further tell us that salvation is a story. The salvation of God’s people has never been a matter of disembodied truths for disembodied souls. And so it is that the Ten Commandments are not abstracted law, but rather are introduced by God placing them in the right part of the story. The Ten Commandments begin with “once upon a time.” God redeemed His people from Egypt, and in gratitude for this, and in light of this historical reality, they were solemnly covenanted to live in a certain grateful way. Grace is followed by gratitude, and gratitude knows no other response than obedience from the heart.
False Gods, False Story:
We live in a secular state, in a secular age. Further, we live in a time when there is a great eagerness to get rid whatever remaining vestiges there may be of the older Christian order. How did this happen?
False gods and false gospels have to function in the world that God made, and this means that they must operate within His categories, even as they attempt to distort and destroy those categories. This means that they must also tell a story of “deliverance from Egypt.” In our case, the story we have heard from them countless times goes like this. The story concerns how our “savior,” the secular state, came about.
“After the Reformation, Europe was wracked with religious strife. The famous ‘wars of religion’ tore Europe apart until finally, with a great sigh of relief, our fathers discovered the virtues of tolerance, and the secular state stepped into the public square, while all bloodthirsty religious convictions were banished into the realm of private conviction.” In this story, not only are we saved by something other than the Christian gospel, we in fact are saved from the Christian gospel. The story is compelling, widespread, constantly reiterated, and almost entirely false. Unfortunately, even many Christians have been taken in by aspects of it.
Battles for the Public Square:
The Church has been marginalized, even in places like the United States where professing Christians constitute a large segment of the population. In large measure, this is because many Christians have believed the story they have been told. In the back of their minds, they are worried about the cultural pandemonium that would be brought about if Christians gain undue influence. Outlaw abortion and what is next? Obviously bloodshed between Lutheran states and Catholic states, just like in the old days. The story has done its work on us.
Christians have therefore tended to divide into two major categories. The first are contented inhabitants of the evangelical ghetto. They want to escape from all public responsibilities, and they conceive the faith as something that will enable us to escape from this evil world. The secular state is wrong, but unconquerable. Satan is the god of this world, and what we need to do is pray for the rapture to helicopter us all out of here—as though God’s work in this world was like America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam, and the eschaton simply a cosmic version of the evacuation of Saigon. The point of everything is to make it to heaven when you die.
The second group wants a place at the table. They do not like being marginalized, with their voice completely unheard, and they want to be invited to the discussions. They accept the idea of the secular state, and the democratic ethos that goes with it, but simply want their voice to be registered along with all the others. The secular state is right, but is currently not living up to its promising potential because the Christians are inexplicably excluded. As the babble of special interest voices ascends up to the secular throne, these Christians want to make sure that a representative evangelical voice is numbered among them.
Restoring What Public Means:
Christian worship is the declaration that God is creating a new humanity in Christ, and wherever that new humanity gathers, a new center is constituted, a new public square is established. We reject the ghetto-izing of the faith, which wants to worship God without actually creating a city. The only way to accomplish this is by distorting what the Scriptures actually say. Treasure the text, but do it in a way that pulls the punch. We also reject the idea that Christ can be considered “a player.” He is no player; He is the Lord of heaven and earth.
How is this to be accomplished? The answer that the Bible gives, from beginning to end, is that such things are always done by faith. The power of the Holy Spirit operates when the Word of God is declared in faith. “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4). How are we to subdue kingdoms? By faith, as we are told in Hebrews (11: 33). How are we to bring every thought captive (2 Cor. 10: 3-6)? Not by carnal means.
The Christian church is far more than mother of the faithful. She is called to be mother of cities. And where shall the root of these new cities be planted? Where the Word and sacrament are.
If God grants a genuine Reformation, it will be one like that which was granted in the 16th century, and the most obvious common feature it will share with that earlier reformation will be that it challenges the rulers of this age. No greater indictment of the contemporary church than this can be found—the secular state is operating on all cylinders, and yet for the most part the Christian pulpit remains a safe place to be.